The Life of Hafiz

M. Aryanpur Kashani

Hafiz was born in Shiraz, the city of "roses and nightingales", around 1324 A.D. Little reliable information is available about his life.  Evidence gleaned from his work and some of the more plausible legends indicate that Hafiz's father, Baha-Oddin, was a native of Isfahan who migrated to Shiraz to escape the Mongol invaders.  His mother was probably from Kazerun, a city to the south of Shiraz.  While still a boy, Hafiz lost his father.  Eventually, poverty drove him to work as an apprentice to a baker.  Being a precocious child, however, he was allowed to audit lessons at a school (maktab) near the bakery.  As years wore on, Hafiz proved himself an outstanding scholar and calligrapher.  The pen-name Hafiz (the memorizer) refers to the fact that he had memorized the Qur'an in its entirety.  Even though much is not known about his schooling, it is clear that the man who wrote the odes possessed vast knowledge not only in theology, philosophy, literature, and history, but also in the varieties of the human heart.

During his long career as a poet, Hafiz sought the patronage of a number of local rulers.  He wrote some of his earliest poems for Abu-Es'Hagh Inju, the ruler of Shiraz and an enlightened man who revered Hafiz.  Unfortunately, in 1356, Shiraz was captured by Amir Mubarez, a ruthless and religious fanatic.  Amir Mubarez closed taverns and deprecated artists.  While poets like Hafiz were in disfavor, religious zealots gained power and oppressed the people in the name of religion.  Many of Hafiz's odes criticize the hypocrisy of religious zealots and the tyranny of magistrates and rulers.  The famous ode beginning with "'Ayb-e rendan makon ay zahed-e pakizeh seresht" exemplifies his attitude toward zealots in lines such as the following:

Pious clergy! Don't mind libertines like me, 
For you won't account for other people's sin.

Mind your business, why in others' you'r  keen?
What we saw today, its fruit tomorrow see.

In another ode, he says:
They closed the tavern door; O'Lord, do not permit.
That they open the door of shame and deceit.
The tyranny of Amir Mubarez alienated the people and led to a rebellion.  Amir Mubarez was blinded and deposed and his son, Shah Shoja' (ruled 1358-85) became the ruler of Shiraz.  The new ruler restored the favored position of Hafiz at the court.  The poet's happy days, however, did not last long.  By 1369 for unknown reasons, Hafiz had once again fallen into disfavor.

It was probably during this period that Hafiz looked elsewhere for support.  He made a journey to Isfahan and Yazd, perhaps in search of a generous patron.  Meanwhile, the far-reaching fame of his poetry brought Hafiz an invitation from Ahmad Jalayer, the ruler of western Iran, to visit his capital, Baghdad.  The reasons why the poet did not go are unknown.  Later on, he was invited by Mahmud Shah of Deccan to visit India.  It is said that Hafiz journeyed overland to the Strait of Hormuz and boarded a ship bound to India.  The sea was stormy and Hafiz, it is said, left the ship and traveled back to Shiraz because he preferred terra firma to the vagaries of the sea.

A few years later, Shiraz was invaded by the Scourge of God, Tamerlane (1336-1405).  Legend has it that there occurred a meeting between this man of the sword and the man of the pen, Hafiz.  Tamerlane is said to have upbraided the poet for having written in one of his well-known odes: "If that Shirazi Turk would take my heart into her hand/For the mole on her cheek, I'd given Bukhara and Samarkand." Tamerlane, himself a native of Samarkand, demanded how Hafiz could have the temerity to give such two great cities just for the mole of a Shirazi woman.  Hafiz, it is said, answered, "Your Majesty, it is because of such prodigality that I have fallen into such povertyl"

Hafiz died in 1391.  He is buried in a garden which in his honor is called Hafizieh.  His mausoleum is one of the major attractions of Shiraz and is often visited by many of his faithful admirers.

The Cannon of Hafiz

It appears that Hafiz was indifferent toward the task of collecting his own poems.  After his death, a friend named Golandam compiled the poet's verses and wrote a preface (dibacheh).  Ironically, the great popularity of Hafiz is a cause of the difficulties associated with his poetry.  To impress their buyers with larger editions, unscrupulous copyists included the works of other poets in the Divan of Hafiz.  Moreover, in later decades some poets circulated their controversial odes under the name of Hafiz in order to escape persecution.  Thus, whereas most scholars and experts believe that Hafiz wrote between four-and five-hundred odes (ghazals), some editions of the Divan contain more than eight-hundred.

Another difficulty with the poems of Hafiz is the insertion of obtrusive lines and the proliferation of verbal variants.  Because of carelessness or a desire to inflate the text, a copyist may have added lines composed by other poets.  Similarly, ignorance or a desire for novelty may have led a copyist to tamper with the text.  As a result, the great demand for the Divan caused excessive copying leading to textual corruption.

The Poetry of Hafiz

In the Persian-speaking world (Iran, Afghanistan, the southern republics of the Soviet Union, parts of Pakistan, India, Iraq, Turkey, and regions around the southern half of the Persian Gulf) Hafiz is generally regarded as not only as a great poet, but also as a seer, a "tongue of the mysterious" (lesan ol qayb) whose poetry is divinely inspired.  In addition to those who read his Divan for enlightenment and delight, there are many who consult it to find out the future or to receive guidance and solace.  Whether it is a journey, an illness, or an important transaction, lovers of Hafiz usually take a fal (augury or divination) with the Divan: They take up his book, make a wish- close their eyes, open a page at random, and recite the poem on the page.  They thus receive a blend of poetic delight, existential guidance, and moral inspiration.

Because it is often mystical, permeated with more than one theme, and laden with associations, the poetry of Hafiz creates an effect far greater than the sum of its parts.  It contains layers of Qur'anic and historical allusions.  It also contains an idiosyncratic poetic diction such as sarv (cypress tree); mogh (Magian); khergheh (cloak); kenesht (church); and shahid (beauty).  What makes the odes of hafiz unique (and, alas, this aspect of his poetry is hardly translatable) is the beauty of his images, his mellifluous language, and his magical rhythm.

Even though Hafiz's odes defy classification, they can be loosely divided into four types:

  1. Lyrics in which the dominant theme is human love and real (as opposed to symbolic) wine.
  2. Odes which deal primarily with mystical love and with wine, rose, lover, etc. as symbols.
  3. Poems in which Hafiz makes quick shifts from one theme, image, or allusion to another.  Like the second type, these deal with mystical love and symbolic wine, but in much more complex fashion.  The odes in this group have multiple themes and luxuriant images.  These qualities-and their philosophical depth make such poems appear obscure and multifaceted, at times even "incoherent." For some native readers, these odes serve as inkblots, evoking different intellectual and emotional reactions, depending on the mood of the hour and the personality of the reader.
  4. Finally, there are the poems that contain a relatively large dosage of sociopolitical undertones.  These can be ascribed to the various stages of the poet's life, because they reflect particular events or people.  Some of these are panegyrics composed in praise of dignitaries and kings.  Others are masterly blends of social commentary and criticism hidden underneath a trope bedecked gossamer of references to love, lover, and wine.
Hafiz's critical comments are mainly directed against hypocritical clergy and harsh magistrates.  Such comments make probable the stories about his persecution by magistrates and the mullahs and the desecration of his tomb soon after his death.  It is not surprising that the poet who wrote lines such as the following had such inveterate enemies:
Hafiz, drink! Sheikh and Sheriff, I tell,
All are hypocrites, if you examine them well!
* This is an excerpt of an introduction by M. Aryanpur Kashani for "Odes of Hafiz, translated from the Persian, by Abbas Aryanpur Kashani, LL.D Published by Mazda Publishers, U.S.A, 1984.  This article has been provided to Iran Online by Iranian Cultural Center of Orange County (ICCOC), California, USA.